Geography / Geology / Astronomy / Poetry
Tucson - it means "at the base of the black mountain" - the mountain being Sentinel Peak, locally known as A Mountain because of egregious defacement of its natural desert beauty in the form of a giant A made of rocks and usually painted white, although lately it has been black to protest war and red/white/blue to support war. The natural black of the stone, or dark red, sometimes darker, is the volcanic stone of the Tucson Mountains, one of the oldest ranges in North America, a desert mountain range now the place of a great tourist-attraction-zoo and a National Monument and the more-than-occasional desecration by 4-wheel drive, giant ham radio antennae, and various other abominations.
A mountain town overgrown, or more precisely, a basin between mountain ranges - the aforementioned Tucson Mountains, the Santa Catalina Mountains which are the highest, and the Tortolita, Santa Rita, Rincon, and Baboquivari Mountains. A great beauty surrounds, and the area beholds a beauty far beyond, as this is one of the premier areas for astronomical observation in the Americas. So, from the ancient, as the area is purportedly the longest continuously inhabited spot in North America, to a future in the stars, all in this mountainous desert.
Beauty . . . yet Tucson is perhaps the ugliest city in which I have ever lived. Dusty, broken-down in many places, crossroads of drug trafficking and illegal alien labor trafficking, strip-malled and housing-developmented near to its ruination. This is a crazy place to live. I once lived in Minnesota where, during the mid-1990's, 86% of the residents in that state had lived their entire lives there. I don't have the official statistic for Tucson, but I would imagine it nearly reversed, that less than 20% of Tucsonans have lived here their entire lives. Often it seems like most of the people here have lived here less than a decade and are not likely to stay a lot longer. I've yet to live here a decade continuously, yet I've lived all but three of my last nineteen years in Tucson.
Nomadic. Transitional. Is this the perfect place for a poetry that embraces nomadism, transitions, ellipses, breaks in groundedness and continuity? It would seem to be so, and such lack of positioning is a characteristic of the poetry here that moves me most, from that of Yaqui oral traditions to the work of Simon Ortiz, Tenney Nathanson, Sheila Murphy, and Lisa Cooper. And if I can claim those who have transitioned through Tucson recently, I would certainly include the work of Jesse Seldess, Tim Peterson, and Heather Nagami, among others.
When I came here in 1984 I felt as though there was no conception of language poetry, sound poetry, the traditions of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, bpNichol, and others who would make poetry by re-making language itself. Yet those mentioned above, who have toiled here in the last twenty years, have made just that kind of poetry, and looking back now, it seems inevitable that they would do so. I see no inconsistency in the fact that the traditions of Dada, Futurism, Modernism, Objectivism, Black Mountain, and Language poetry might survive (if not exactly flourish, but then little flourishes in a desert) here.
Yet these are the undergrowth, the disaffected, those that don't quite fit the less local, more systematic, and less interesting poetic culture, that land of poetry that strives to continue its Iowa or Ivy traditions - the poets of the two large state universities and their creative writing disasters. Oddly, what does fit here is that disaffectedness that is alive - the unfinished, sparse, and gangly work of verbal innovation and surprise, of suspension of personhood in favor of shifting non-identity, that exists quite comfortably among the prickles of the desert as well as among the ever-changing contiguities of contemporary philosophy and avant-garde poetics that are more often associated with large coastal urban centers. But if Einstein can be among the daffodils, why not Derrida with the nopales, a unique cactus that can simply be lopped off at any point and tossed to the ground, where it will grip hard and grow again, not quite in the same arrangement as before.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge once told me that her impossibly long poetic line is a function of the ever-expanding New Mexico horizon. It's not like that here, where the desert interrupts itself everywhere, the sky is too bright to look upon, and it's just too damned hot for human comfort. Yet we're here, and the best of our poetry represents that discomfort in its quirkiness, its odd humor, its willingness to try anything in order to survive. Here in this gathering of poets are some of the survivors.
June 24, 2003